The first building to house R.J. Thomas Mfg. Co. Inc. was a small block structure erected in the country about 3 miles south of Cherokee, Iowa. Built in 1959, R.J. Thomas set out to manufacture agricultural equipment of his own design. He also did custom design and manufacturing work.
R.J. Thomas Mfg. Company was officially incorporated on May 1, 1959 by R.J. and Doris Thomas, the result of a lifelong vision held by R.J. As a child, he was fascinated by anything mechanical and dismantled old Maytag washing machines. He worked with his peers in high school to build a glider. As a student at Iowa State College, R.J. discovered the discipline of engineering and knew that’s where he belonged. Married to Doris Morrill on Christmas Eve in 1939, R.J. worked in the Methods (Design) Department of John Deere in Waterloo, Iowa, designing tractors, then returned to his hometown, Cherokee, Iowa, as shop superintendent at Caswell Manufacturing to make the first hydraulic loader, a labor saving device for farmers losing their helpers to WWII.
After serving in the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion as Machinist’s Mate, First Class, in the South Pacific, R.J. continued as shop superintendent at Caswell’s until 1959 when he followed his lifelong dream to own his own business and manufacture his own designs.
The Early Years
The first building was built in June of 1959, about 3 miles south of Cherokee to manufacture R.J.’s innovative invention, the Pulver Rooter with counter-rotating knives, which simultaneously cultivated and plowed corn and cotton fields. Later an insecticide bander was developed which proved very popular. Custom design work eventually led Thomas Mfg. into the park equipment business.
In the early Sixties, John Gilchrist of the Cherokee County Conservation Board approached Thomas about designing and building grills for the newly developed Martin’s Access County Park. Thomas and Gilchrist worked together to evolve a satisfactory grill design. The new grill proved to be durable, useful and popular with picnickers and campers. If a park wanted a grill, then of course, it also needed a picnic table. Or maybe a bench. And so the product line began to expand from customer demand.
By the mid Seventies the company made the decision to make park equipment its predominant product line and agriculture products were discontinued. Today, R.J. Thomas Mfg. Company Inc. is nationally and internationally recognized for its Pilot Rock brand park, streetscape and campsite products.
Putting the 'family' in family business
As with all small, growing family businesses, the family has been an integral part of the labor pool. Supporting R.J. in all endeavors, Doris handled the sales, finances, and the office. She even became the first traveling salesperson for the company, covering the Midwest calling on park commissioners and exhibiting at trade shows in an era when that was unusual for a woman. Her confident, friendly demeanor won over the customers and sales grew. The family includes two daughters and two sons, each working alongside their parents as they and the business grew. Daughters, Cheryl and Linda, as teenagers, assisted making mailing lists, preparing mailers, sorting bolts, and helping in anyway they could.
Sons, Craig and Steve, became involved from childhood working side by side with their father throughout their teen years, returning to the business after college and eventually taking charge. Craig, the eldest son, educated as an engineer, took on the jobs of manufacturing, research, product design, productivity, and building expansion. Steve, with a business degree, took on finances, human resources, sales, and public relations. It was this balance of interests, talents, and education between Craig and Steve recognized by R.J. and Doris that made R.J. confident to eventually step aside.
Today, R.J. and Doris are deceased. Craig is retired, and Steve manages the daily operations of the business. Linda and Cheryl live in other states with their families, but remain actively involved as owners and board members … and as friends to many employees.
Why "Pilot Rock"?
A common question is, “How did R.J. Thomas come up with the brand name “Pilot Rock” for his grills and tables?” Geography had much to do with it. Across the highway from where Thomas built his first factory is a huge glacial rock the size of several houses. Whether traveling by river or over land, the early native Indians and then the pioneers used the rock as a landmark to navigate by, so it became known as “Pilot Rock”. Today it is still a local landmark and the object to view from a rest area along U.S. Highway 59.
Growth, Upgrades, & Technology
The physical facilities of the company have been expanded and enlarged 13 times since 1980. The company made a commitment to automate the welding, production and painting operations wherever possible. That decision initiated what has become a regular process of evaluating the manufacturing facilities and incorporating upgrades when needed – from physical plant to machinery to layout to software. Beginning in the late Seventies, Craig began to modernize and automate the company’s physical plant and production facilities. This ongoing program continues today. As the demand for its park equipment grew, the company required different and newer steel processing and handling machinery. And as R.J. Thomas Mfg. Co. becomes an ever larger player in the site equipment industry, the updated production facilities help keep it competitive and increase production capacity.
The company employs a growing staff of robot welders and computer controlled machinery of various descriptions. The growth and automation is leading to a regular effort to streamline workflow throughout the plant. Which often leads to more expansion and modernization … and the process repeats itself. A new powder coating paint line and a thermoplastic coating line have been installed to enhance our ability to provide more finish and color choices. In 2015 a new nitrogen fiber laser was installed greatly improve the efficiency of cutting steel parts. And new LED light fixtures are being installed in the factory to make us more enegy efficient.
The Pilot Rock line includes 8 basic product categories: charcoal grills, campfire rings, picnic tables, benches, trash and recycling receptacles, bike racks, site amenities and custom signs. These 8 basic categories explode into literally thousands of possible product permutations. In 1995 the company’s catalog was 36 pages long. Today’s catalog is over 100 pages and still growing with new products introduced with each issue.
As the product line expands, the customer base grows, too. Or is it the other way around (this is a chicken or egg dilemma)? For years the traditional customer was the government park system at the township, city, county, state and federal levels. This base has grown to include privately owned campgrounds and RV parks. Plus schools and colleges, commercial customers, landscape architects, golf courses, churches and recreation facilities. Even the private residential homeowner is becoming a customer with the popularity of online shopping via our website.
While the product line may not seem to be very “high tech”, Pilot Rock grills and picnic tables are marketed and manufactured using “high tech” methods. Today, the company holds 8 patents on its products and designs. The company and its staff work hard every day to maintain its competitive advantages and the superior reputation of Pilot Rock park equipment. The company’s motto is: This company wouldn’t be anything without its people. A tribute to the many long-term employees who see the value and pride in the Pilot Rock reputation.
Treating Employees & the Community
Today R.J. Thomas Mfg. Co., Inc. employs 70 people. We are proud of our 50-year track record of continuous employment, never having a layoff. Over half the crew has been here for over 15 years. Thirteen members of the staff have worked with the Thomas family for over 20 years.
In January, 2009, Tom Riedemann was recognized at a company-wide surprise party for reaching the 35-year milestone. There are also two second-generation men working here – the sons working with Steve and Craig, whose father worked with R.J. in the early years.
R.J. Thomas Mfg. Co., Inc. has always been a strong supporter of the local community as a way to give back to the towns where the employees live, and to the organizations to which they belong. The company donates regularly to academic programs in the area school systems, to local volunteer fire departments, county conservation programs, and other worthy causes. It gave generously to a campaign to build a local community college campus and conference center, to the expansion of the Cherokee public library, and to build the new Bacon Aquatic Center. It also supports the local area economic development efforts as being essential to the progress of the people and businesses of Cherokee County. Every 8 weeks the Siouxland Blood Bank bloodmobile arrives and employees are encouraged to donate – on company time.
The Company also encourages its employees to get involved in their local communities. A few of the “after hours” hats worn by company staff include: a Cherokee County supervisor, city council members, the 2008 Citizen of The Year, a Chamber of Commerce president, Boy and Girl Scout leaders, volunteer firemen, Guard and Reserve servicemen, and numerous other church and civic organization committee members.
And in that generous spirit Bob, known as “R.J.” to all employees, and Doris Thomas took every opportunity to stress the importance of family and personally treated all employees as “extended family”. They always showed a genuine interest in, and concern for, everyone’s well-being. The second generation Thomas family continues to express this attitude and spirit today. To R.J. and Doris, family came first, and it was important for them and the company to promote and participate in employee activities and events to foster that “family bond”.
For decades the company has regularly sponsored annual picnics and barbecues where employees and families enjoy the outdoors, great food (cooked on a Pilot Rock grill), softball games and swimming. At holiday time, the annual Christmas party includes performances by talented employees, often highlighted by a unique song composed to commemorate a special event in a co-worker’s life. Other winter activities include bowling parties, tree decorating and participation in the annual Chamber Christmas parade. All to encourage a spirit of fun and camaraderie within the staff at R.J. Thomas Mfg. Co.
In 2004 our float entry in the annual Christmas Parade was employee-made and titled “Santa’s Modern Workshop.” It was complete with an operational and animated robot welder, staffed with familiar looking “elves”, all working to the Styx tune Mr. Roboto. It filled two flat racks, and won 1st place in the parade!
To come full circle, in 2008, the Thomas family, on behalf of the business and its employees, made a large financial contribution to the Cherokee County Conservation Board so it could complete the acquisition of some land to expand the Martin’s Access County Park area. Almost 50 years later, this park continues to be very popular and the demand for recreational areas continues to grow. R.J. Thomas Mfg. Co. and its Pilot Rock brand of products will grow with it. There are always new and innovative products on the drawing board.
Today, the Third Generation of the Thomas family has come on board, bringing with them education, life experiences, and talents that family-owned businesses need to grow and thrive. Aaron, Adam, and Andy Thomas are each stepping into roles that will help them lead this company into the future.